MOUNT VERNON — Concerned citizens took advantage of a monthly community meeting with some Mount Vernon City Council members to discuss city issues, ranging from the proposed wastewater rate hike to brick streets and downtown parking — whatever was on their minds.
The hour-long session started with a discussion between council member and Utilities Committee Chairman Burt Hanson and city resident Miriam St. Jean. St. Jean said she was concerned the wastewater increase of 34 percent would create a hardship for residents, especially senior citizens.
“We are in a recession; this is going to hurt a lot of people,” she said.
Hanson started his answer with a review of how utilities are funded.
“Utilities have to be self-funded,” he explained. “That is, the people who use the water and wastewater have to pay [for system improvements]. You cannot take money from the general fund to put into that fund, nor can you take money that’s generated by utilities and put it in the general fund.”
Hanson said the water rates have gone up about 3 percent every year, keeping that area of funding in relatively good shape. The problem, he said, is that wastewater rates have not been raised in 17 years.
“Because of, I think two things, prudent financial management by the city and the fact we have not expended that much money on the wastewater plant, we haven’t had to for a lot of years. Over the last 10 years it’s become necessary to modernize the wastewater plant,” Hanson said.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the permitting agency for wastewater plants, sets the rules for these plants and all the particulars of what can be put in the river. The quality of outflow, Hanson said, continually increases.
Hanson feels the $14 million upgrade at the wastewater treatment plant is necessary to keep up with Ohio EPA guidelines. He said the amount of sewage that needs to be treated has greatly increased since the plant was built, and, with guidelines becoming more strict, the need for the overhaul is imperative now.
Hanson explained that a 10-year plan was devised between four and five years ago, and the improvements that will be paid for with the proposed rate increase will help complete that plan.
St. Jean asked Hanson if the city could lose its permit with OEPA if upgrades were not made within the projected 10-year plan.
“Losing a permit takes place over time,” Hanson said. “If something was wrong, they would say you have to fix this within such and such a date. … Ultimately, this would mean we lose local control of the plant. That’s something we don’t want.”
In regard to the way city residents see the rate increase, scheduled to be implemented over three years, Hanson said he believed if economic times were good, residents wouldn’t think twice about new rates.
Council member Rebecca Jordan said she recently toured the wastewater plant and saw with her own eyes that improvements were necessary.
“It was a little gross, but very informative,” Jordan said. “After taking the tour, you can see there is a lot of stuff that needs to be done.”
Hanson said that although the city has applied for stimulus money for the project, he sees no reason to wait to see if the city is awarded anything from the stimulus package, and that moving forward is the right answer for the city.
When asked if, in hindsight, not increasing the wastewater rates over the last 17 years was a bad idea, Hanson said, “possibly,” but said he felt residents would rather wait and pay for a project instead of making smaller installments when the money isn’t needed.
Council member John Fair disagreed with Hanson and believes rate increases should be tabled until final results are in regarding stimulus money. Fair also believes the improvements that need to be done at the wastewater plant can be done in more manageable phases instead of one $14 million project.
“The problem is that we’re putting Band-Aids on things that don’t work,” Fair said. “I think we can do one [improvement] at a time and not all at once. In bad economic times, it doesn’t seem like a real good plan.”
The third reading for the wastewater increase will take place at tonight’s city council meeting.
Resident Brenda Nixon has lived in Mount Vernon for eight years, after moving here from Kansas City. She said she liked the charm and history of the brick streets, but said she was bothered by the semitrailors on these brick streets.
“I know they are necessary, but if somehow we can remove them from brick streets and residential neighborhoods,” Nixon said.
Hanson, Fair and Jordan explained the history and opposition to a city bypass.
The group, along with Tyler Fehrman, who will be running for a city council seat, also discussed downtown parking and what being a member of city council means and requires.
The open discussion with council members takes place the first Saturday of every month from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. at Sips.